Refueling a Doomed War on Drugs: Flawed Policy Feeds Growing Conflict

September 25, 2007

Within days following September 11, the international chorus of heartfelt concern for the victims and their families was followed by troubling and calculated moves for advantage by advocates of measures which could serve to escalate the war on drugs. The Bush administration floated and then withdrew a proposal for a broad five-year waiver of human rights restrictions on U.S. security assistance to other countries, an ominous proposition for Latin America. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) argued that the war on drugs in Latin America should be expanded, because it is integrally linked with protecting the United States against terrorism. The Colombian Army sought to bolster its standing by taking out newspaper ads highlighting destruction wrought by Colombian insurgents. U.S. backers of a bold counterinsurgency policy there have issued grave new warnings about the threat of "narcoterrorism." Even the Ecuadorian Foreign Minister made a case to editors of The Washington Post that the Bush administration’s proposal for new drug war spending in the Andes (as well as Andean trade preferences) should be attached to the anti-terrorism bill moving at the time through Congress.

These moves do not reflect a considered strategy to increase the security of citizens here and around the hemisphere in the wake of the events of September 11. They suggest instead a jockeying to take advantage of the unease felt by the public, the urgency felt by policymakers, and the growing bandwagon for a new war on terrorism, to push an alarming agenda—to use these troubled times to undo many of the safeguards put in place after past abuses and excesses by U.S. policy in Latin America, and to wrap a new rationale around the U.S. drug war in the region—a war that has failed to live up to the promise of its proponents, and whose support among policymakers is broad but often shallow.

At best, September 11 has sidetracked an important and recently re-energized policy debate about democracy, development, economic integration and immigration in the region. With Mexico foremost in mind, there was a growing sense in Washington as recently as early September that the stakes on these issues were too high to be subsumed by U.S. drug control policies, particularly the policy of "certifying" the drug-war cooperation and performance of other countries. It is too early to tell whether the progress in this debate can be recovered. More ominously, there is a clear danger that the response to September 11 may tip U.S. drug control policy more strongly in the direction of relying heavily on—and increasing the power and prerogatives of—security forces and intelligence services in Latin America, and of restricting dissent and policy debate in a new security climate. This would threaten fragile advances in strengthening democracy, human rights and civil liberties in the region. Equally important, it would fuel a doomed—and widening—war on drugs throughout the region.

These dangers were already inherent in U.S. drug control policy in Latin America, particularly in the wake of the first "Andean Initiative" launched by the first President Bush in 1989. The new President Bush has now inherited a Clinton-initiated escalation of his father’s drug war—from Mexico to Chile and Argentina, geographically and programmatically centered around the Andes—that was far more complex, dangerous and expensive than anything George Senior attempted. Throughout the eight years of the Clinton presidency, hardline Republican drug warriors in Congress trained incessant fire on the administration for what they claimed was an abandonment of a serious war on drugs and the President’s own lack of personal moral example. The onslaught was particularly vitriolic, and in many ways particularly successful, on the question of Colombia, where hardliners convinced the Clinton administration to increase the U.S. investment in the war on drugs—and by extension, its entanglement in the longstanding battle against leftist insurgents there.

The sense of deliverance and excited anticipation with which drug warriors greeted the election of George W. Bush was heightened by his choice of personnel for key positions. Attorney General John Ashcroft was perhaps the most conservative member of the Senate, known particularly for his strongly moralistic bent. He now oversees the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)—key agencies in the war on drugs. Asa Hutchinson, the Republican Representative chosen by Bush to head the DEA, came out of the same political and moral tradition. A graduate of Bob Jones University, he emerged from relative obscurity as one of the House managers of the Clinton impeachment trial. To direct the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Bush tapped John Walters. Conservatives could not have wished for a more sympathetic "Drug Czar"—the spokesperson and official coordinator of all U.S. drug control strategy. Walters had served as the deputy Drug Czar during the Reagan administration and was a key architect of the Andean Initiative launched by the first President Bush in 1989.

Today, the defining and most politically sensitive fronts in the Latin American drug war are in Mexico and in Colombia. In fact, the drug war that the Clinton administration committed the United States to in Colombia—with significant support from Democratic lawmakers, particularly in the Senate—is as hardline, and more bipartisan, than anything the Bush administration’s conservative supporters could have hoped for. Like the legacy Johnson handed Nixon in Vietnam, the Clinton White House laid the foundation. The Bush team is now engaged in managing Clinton’s war and its effects, rather than challenging the underlying assumptions of that policy.

But those assumptions remain deeply flawed, and guarantee continued failure. Despite the war rhetoric, the "enemy" in supply-side drug control is not this cartel or that drug lord but a market system. Drug prohibition policies in the context of stubborn demand create a black market that ensures extraordinarily high profits for traffickers: Drugs sell in the United States for over ten times the cost of their production in Latin America. Inflated black market prices never approach a level that might significantly curb drug abuse and addiction in the United States. But the tremendous profits they generate finance criminal organizations, spur often-violent competition for market share, provide billions of dollars to bribe ill-paid law enforcement and security forces, and ensure that new producers and traffickers will readily step forward to replace those who are taken down.

The fatal flaws in the drug war create a chicken-little dynamic: The sky is always falling. The crisis of the moment—the discovery of a new smuggling route, the spread of coca cultivation to new countries or new parts of old countries, the emergence of a new drug trafficking organization—always demands an emergency response. Unwilling to question the fundamental assumptions and risk appearing "soft on drugs," the Bush administration is following the classic alternatives: escalation and tinkering with the policy mix (a little more for alternative development and democratic institution-building; a little more for Colombia’s neighbors).

Meanwhile, the policy not only fails to solve drug problems here in the United States, but also wreaks damage in the region. Pressing Latin American governments to fight the drug trade corrupts the very police and security forces that do the fighting. It increases the power of the military to threaten fragile civilian democracies, exacerbates civil conflict, threatens the livelihood of peasant farmers, and spills the violence and the drug trade to neighboring countries. The drug war also threatens to undermine broader U.S. interests—both economic (trade and investment, access to natural resources and fostering sustainable development) and political (strengthening democracy, human rights, demilitarization, and stability). Dispatches from the two main fronts in the drug war, Mexico and Colombia, suggest mixed but dubious prospects for the Bush team as it pursues a conservative strategy in the long shadow of September 11.

MEXICO: President Bush publicly made improved U.S. relations with Mexico a core administration priority. In many ways, a new U.S.-Mexico dialogue has begun, broaching a range of historically difficult topics in an unusually creative manner and constructive tone. Within this context the Bush administration seeks to continue many of the same drug control programs as Clinton, to train and support Mexican military forces and law enforcement agencies in their attack on trafficking organizations. But Washington wants to do this on less conflictive terms than in the past, and may even be willing to reform the drug certification process—a sore point between the United States and its Latin American neighbors—as a result.

U.S.-Mexican relations regarding drug control policy have always been sensitive. Mexico’s 2,000 mile land border with the United States, and its surrounding sea lanes, are a natural draw for those seeking to traffic illicit drugs—particularly cocaine and heroin—north toward the $50 billion U.S. market. Officials are able to inspect only a fraction of the tens of thousands of vehicles and commercial trucks that daily cross the border, taking advantage of the international free trade encouraged by NAFTA. It is virtually impossible to seal such a border against the flow of drugs. The situation is made worse because Mexico’s police forces and judicial system have been historically ineffective and corrupt—and their corruption has been deepened by their involvement, at U.S. insistence, in the drug war. The recent decision by Mexico’s Supreme Court to allow for extradition of Mexican citizens to face prosecution for drug offenses in the United States, and renewed efforts to weed out corruption in the Attorney General’s office, have led to dramatically enhanced cooperation between law enforcement officials across the border. Even the DEA has begun sharing intelligence reports with some of its Mexican counterparts. Sustained and effective law enforcement in Mexico, however, has proven an elusive goal for decades.

Managing U.S.-Mexican drug relations is an even more delicate task due to the long history of U.S. condescension and intervention. The flashpoint for the past fifteen years has been the annual U.S. drug "certification" process, in which the United States condemns and sanctions those countries whose drug war performance does not measure up. The annual certification ritual has provided a convenient platform for many members of Congress to sound tough on drugs, while placing the blame for domestic problems of abuse and addiction on others beyond our borders.

The process also created a focal point for those with other axes to grind against the Mexican government. Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) often vented his enormous distaste for Mexico’s PRI party during certification debates, warning of the danger of a "narco-Leninist" state being constructed on the U.S. southern border. But some of the most vocal Democratic critics of Mexico during certification debates were liberal members of the House whose driving passions were the Mexican government’s dismal record on human rights, or concerns over what NAFTA would mean for workers here and there.

In 1996 and 1997, developments in Mexico and in Washington set the certification process on a course that nearly spun out of control. Republicans, having taken control of the House in 1995, felt emboldened to intensify their attacks on the drug control performance of the Clinton administration. There were dramatic revelations of drug corruption in Mexico—including revelations that Mexico’s drug czar, General Gutiérrez Rebollo, was on the payroll of a notorious cartel. When the Clinton administration nonetheless certified Mexico, Congressional critics moved to overturn that decision. Only a full-court press by a Democratic White House and Republican Congressional leaders kept Congress from forcing a decertification with significant ramifications for broader U.S.-Mexican relations.

The debates over Mexico certification provoked the first full debate over the policy itself in July 1997. Senators Dodd (D-CT) and McCain (R-AZ) offered an amendment that would have suspended it for two years. But faced with a divided Democratic caucus, and consumed with other matters, the Clinton administration did not expend the political capital that would have been needed in its final years to press for a congressional revocation of the process.

In 2001, a convergence of developments in both Mexico and Washington may make reform of the certification process possible. Bush is determined to construct a close personal relationship with President Vicente Fox, and a high-level U.S.-Mexico working group proposed cooperative measures on border issues and immigration that seemed impossible only a year ago. [See "Immigration Policy in Flux" this issue.] These are not matters that the Bush administration wants to jeopardize by conflicts over an issue like certification. Bush used the occasion of his mid-February meeting with Fox to make it clear that the administration would certify Mexico in 2001, and indicated an openness to considering congressional measures to reform the entire process. And Secretary of State Colin Powell, in early testimony in the Senate, bemoaned the wasted energy of dedicating his staff to sorting through the reporting required under the certification law, rather than working with other countries to address problems related to the drug trade. A certification reform measure was passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this summer, posing an acid test for the Bush administration: Does the White House care enough about removing sources of conflict and volatility in U.S.-Mexican relations to weigh in strongly for passage of the reform by the full Senate and House, or will it take the politically cautious (if short-sighted) course of letting current policy stand?

Reform of the drug certification law would not change the fundamental and misguided logic of the U.S. drug war. It would, however, be a high-profile move, shifting the politics and dynamics of U.S. drug control policy toward Latin America in ways that could open up space for a broader debate and further reforms.

COLOMBIA: But if there are signs of hope for progress in U.S. policy toward Mexico, the same cannot be said for the drug war in Colombia. Here, the Clinton administration’s legacy is a black hole; the Bush team is plunging in.

The newly escalated U.S. drug war in southern Colombia is already dispersing illicit drug production, drug-related and political violence, and tens of thousands of refugees to other parts of Colombia and across its borders. The situation is further exacerbated by the integral link between the drug war and Colombia’s 40-year guerrilla war. The Bush administration has already begun to confront the failure and spillover. The administration’s plan is to escalate the war in Colombia—where pressures are building to cross the line into straight-out counterinsurgency—and to spread the militarized counterdrug strategy to Colombia’s neighbors.

Colombia’s $1.3 billion counterdrug package from the United States—crafted by the Clinton administration in the summer of 2000—made it the third largest recipient of U.S. security assistance in the world. Themajor stated aim has been to eradicate the rapidly expanding coca crop in southern Colombia, particularly in the province of Putumayo, by training new elite anti-drug battalions in counterinsurgency so that they can protect eradication efforts from FARC guerrillas active in the area.

The motivation for the escalation in Colombia was a shift in the distribution of coca cultivation within the Andean region, a familiar pattern in the history of supply-side drug control. Dramatic coca eradication successes between 1996 and 2000 in Bolivia (production fell from 118,000 to 36,000 acres) and Peru (from 230,000 to 84,000 acres) were quickly being offset by the doubling of cultivation in Colombia (from 165,000 to 334,000 acres). In response, then-Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey led the fight within the administration to escalate in Colombia. His push came at a time when many in the administration were deeply concerned about spiraling violence and the potential for political instability in Colombia, but with no easy answers in sight. Groundwork for the policy tool McCaffrey championed—training and equipping the Colombian army—had already been set by the U.S. military’s Southern Command, which had been substantially increasing support for their Colombian counterparts to meet the threat of that country’s insurgencies.

But the spread of production cannot be contained through military means. Coca is an easy crop to produce: It grows in marginal soils, needs little investment or cultivation, and earns small peasant growers far more than any other crop. The traffickers who buy it are willing to pay high prices because of the extraordinarily high profits made by selling refined cocaine in the United States and Europe. The eradication of coca in one area thus inevitably spreads it to other areas in order to meet the lucrative demand.

Not surprisingly, then, the escalating drug war in southern Colombia is simply spreading production elsewhere. In 1996, the provinces of Caquetá and Guaviare together made up 148,000 of Colombia’s 165,000 acres of coca cultivation. Fumigation efforts there moved cultivation to Putumayo, where acres under cultivation jumped from 17,000 in 1996 to 116,000 in 2000. Eradication in Putumayo has increased production in the neighboring province of Nariño. U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson told the Los Angeles Times in late July, "Everywhere we look there is more coca than we expected. There’s just more out there than we thought." There are reports of coca cultivation being restarted in areas of Peru that had been eradicated, and coca is appearing across the frontier in Ecuador. Brazil is bracing to meet the threat of drug production and trade in its border regions.

In response to neighboring countries’ concerns about the spillover of drugs, violence and refugees the Bush administration repackaged Plan Colombia as the Andean Regional Initiative (ARI). This includes significant increases in military and police aid to Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela and Panama. [See "Into the Andean Quagmire", this issue] The Bush package also substantially increases social and economic aid, including aid for alternative development. Fumigating peasant crops is challenging the livelihoods of tens of thousands of small peasants, generating protests and political opposition within Colombia. The governors of six provinces in southern Colombia have protested that aerial fumigation destroys food and other legal crops, and called instead for a combination of manual coca eradication and serious alternative development programs. The Colombian government has protested the damage to the environment and public health and called for a suspension of fumigation, and there have been moves within the Colombian Senate to order a halt to the spraying.

Chasing down coca crops, however, may not be the worst of the Bush administration’s problems in Colombia. The drug war is dragging the United States deeper into the central conflict in Colombia, the guerrilla war. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), National Liberation Army (ELN), and other insurgent groups have been engaged in a protracted guerrilla war with the Colombian government for decades over issues of political power, land reform, and other grievances. In recent years, the FARC has expanded its size and power, extending its control over vast areas of the Colombia countryside where the police and the military have difficulty operating at all, or can only maintain a presence in major towns. One of the key sources of financing for the FARC has been the taxes it has imposed in its areas of control, and nowhere are the taxes on production and commerce more lucrative than in the coca- and heroin-growing zones.

The U.S. drug war is being fought in many FARC strongholds, leading the U.S. to provide the "counternarcotics" battalions with counterinsurgency training. The official U.S. position—still maintained by the Bush administration—is that our central interest is drug eradication and that we do not want to be involved in the civil war. But U.S.-trained counternarcotics battalions will inevitably use their counterinsurgency training against the guerrillas in southern Colombia. The guerrillas will continue to block the drug war efforts in their traditional strongholds; they will continue to threaten our allies, the Colombian military; and they will continue to pose a threat to the Colombian government. The very structure of the policy itself will generate mounting pressure for dragging the United States more deeply into a full-scale counterinsurgency war.

This march into the quagmire is not simply an unintended by-product of a misguided strategy: It is exactly what many in the Colombian military and government want. The Colombian army has long seen the counterinsurgency war as its main arena. For many in the military, the drug war is not an end in itself, but rather a means to get helicopters, weapons, and training to go after their central enemies in the guerrilla movements. The government of Colombia is, quite naturally, concerned to protect state institutions and to expand its weak authority in the countryside. Security and state-building are its major goals. They have read the Washington signals that signing on to an expanded drug war is the best way to secure support for these efforts.

Key U.S. actors also want deeper involvement. Officials in the State Department want to help the Colombian government secure its territory from the guerrillas and help it build stronger national institutions. They do not have a coherent strategy for doing this but see drug war money—which is much more politically palatable in Congress than counterinsurgency or nation building assistance—as a way to help. U.S. military advisors in Colombia see the separation between the two wars as artificial and are pressing for an expansion of their mandate from support of coca eradication to helping the military defend territory and state institutions—and eventually (most likely) to helping the military take the initiative against the guerrillas. Within many influential U.S. military and intelligence circles, this is seen as the only realistic way to adequately defend the Colombian government, and to either marginalize the guerrillas or force them to make peace on the government’s terms.[1] Deeper involvement in counterinsurgency promises to be even more dangerous and self-defeating than the war on the drug supply.[2] There is some official skepticism about such an expansion—about whether it is wise and whether it can be sold to Congress and the American public. In Congress, there has been vocal opposition in the House to current levels of funding: On key votes this year and last, more than 180 members of the House have been willing to oppose the policy. But so far, only a handful of Senators and Representatives—like Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN), and Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Jan Shakowsky (D-IL)—have been willing to consistently and vocally expose and oppose the flawed policy. The majority still seem willing to take what they perceive to be a politically safer "wait and see" approach.

Within the Bush administration, there have been occasional public expressions of skepticism about the drug war framework for Colombia policy. But there are no signs of changing course to pursue the only serious alternative: putting the drug war on the back burner and seriously supporting a negotiated settlement with the guerrilla groups. Pursuing such a strategy would not be easy. But by supporting a Colombian military that in turn supports or tacitly condones paramilitary groups that routinely assassinate civilians, Washington is exacerbating the civil conflict in Colombia, and deepening the obstacles to a negotiated settlement. Opposition leaders within Congress and the human rights community have gained traction on the specific issue of imposing human rights conditions on military aid, and this has slowed a move to counterinsurgency. But challenges to the drug-war-cum-counterinsurgency strategy itself are more rare, and have met with less success.

What is needed, but thus far only dimly visible on the horizon, is vocal, informed and consistent pressure on the administration to first re-evaluate the failed and flawed premises that make the drug war in the region unwinnable—and then to muster the political courage and wisdom to change course.

Kenneth Sharpe is professor of political science at Swarthmore College and co-author of Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial (University of California Press, 1996).

William Spencer is deputy director of the Washington Office on Latin America.

1. This position is well captured in Angel Rabasa and Peter Chalk, Colombian Labyrinth: The Synergy of Drugs and Insurgency and Its Implications for Regional Stability, (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 2001).
2. William M. LeoGrande and Kenneth E. Sharpe, "Two Wars or One? Drugs, Guerrillas, and Colombia’s New Violencia," World Policy Journal, Fall 2000, pp.1-11.

Tags: US foreign policy, Colombia, drug war, Mexico, capitalism, counterinsurgency

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